Muslim Feminism in History: Halidé Edib Adivar

black and white photo of woman
March 28, 2016

Halidé Edib Adivar (1884–1964) was a Turkish novelist, feminist, and advocate for women’s rights who wore many hats during her lifetime. She was best known around the world for her writing, in which she criticized the lack of rights of Turkish women.

In 1884, Adivar was born in Istanbul to a father who was a secretary to the Ottoman sultan. Although it was unusual at the time, Adivar’s father encouraged his daughter to pursue an education. Private teachers educated Adivar at home, and she then attended the American College for Girls in Istanbul. She became the first Muslim woman to graduate when she received a bachelor’s degree in 1901.

Adivar then married mathematician and astronomer Salih Zeki Bey, and they had two children. It was at this time that she began writing articles discussing the status of women. She also wrote patriotic poems. In 1908, she established the Society for the Elevation of Women, a women’s rights organization. In addition to advocating for equality for women, she opposed Turkey’s restrictive marriage laws that legalized polygamy, child marriage, and arbitrary divorce by men.

Adivar’s first husband divorced her, and she subsequently remarried in 1917. She became a lecturer at Instanbul’s Faculty of Letters. During this time she was active in the Turkish nationalist movement. She worked as a nurse and soldier during the Turkish War of Independence, achieving the rank of corporal and becoming the only woman officer in the country. She continued speaking out, giving fiery speeches against the foreign occupation of her country after World War I.

In 1926, Adivar was accused of treason and escaped to Europe. During that time, she traveled to the United States, where she lectured on the social and political climate in her country. Among these appearances were several AAUW meetings. In a 1928 issue of the AAUW Journal, Cora Rigby, journalist, AAUW member, and Women’s National Press Club founder, announced that Adivar would give the opening address at the Williamstown Institute of Politics at Williams College in Massachusetts. As such, she would be the first woman lecturer ever at the renowned institute. Rigby praised Adivar for her courage and urged members to find an opportunity to hear her speak. In describing her, Rigby wrote, “She is so far advanced of her country that she must live outside of it, but she presents and represents it in a way to focus world attention upon it. She is unique with a personality that makes an immediate impression and lingers.” Adivar helped illustrate for AAUW members how different barriers to women’s empowerment exist everywhere.

In 1939, Adivar returned to Turkey and became a professor of literature in Istanbul. She spent the remainder of her life in her homeland and remained active in the country’s affairs, even becoming a member of Parliament from 1950 to 1954.

Against all odds, Adivar continued to advocate and speak out on the issues she cared about. Her life story shatters many stereotypes about Muslim women and gives us a window into feminism around the world in the early 20th century.

 


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